We are on the eve of the Synod on marriage and the family, 5-19 October. And I propose that we should consider what we expect, hope or fear from this Synod. We know that it has already broken new ground through wide consultation – which has included the laity. Amateur though the questions of the consultation were, it does seem to have reflected substantial gaps between the Magisterium and the body of the Church.
Among the questions which the synod will examine are
Marriage according to the Natural Law
The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization
Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
The Relationship Between the Family and the Person
Other Challenges and Proposals
Synods arising from Vatican II have in the past been very much under the control of the Vatican, particularly the Curia. Both the agenda and the final outcomes often appear to have been master-minded. It has even been suggested that they were presented as a pretence of collegiality, when in fact they have been ?o more than a confirmation of no change. However the advent of Pope Francis may well make things different this time.
Will we see the bishops in open robust exchanges, and – even more importantly – will it be they who decide the outcomes, in communion with the Pope, or the Curia? It will be a real test of collegiality, otherwise we might as well drop the idea. And will we receive a reliable account of the discussions? Or perhaps nothing more than the eventual publication of some kind of carefully drafted official document?
The signs so far indicate that there will be no substantive change in moral doctrine. But there may well be changes in pastoral practice. One of these may be a re-emphasis on the sovereignty of conscience, both its extents and its limits. It is perhaps about time for this Vatican II teaching on this to become a reality in pastoral practice and in general Catholic understanding.
An issue which Francis has highlighted is the pastoral permission for Catholics in certain second marriages to return to the sacraments. Against this may be the view that even a pastoral change here may endanger the concept of sacramental marriage.
The process of marriage annulment may possibly be revised and simplified. Will the outcome here be acceptable to all? Will we get closer to annulment as the Catholic workaround for divorce?
A change in the prohibition of artificial contraception seems unlikely. But will the Church find some way of handling or expressing this in order to bridge the gap the between the laity and the Magisterium? On this blog it has been suggested that bishops have on the whole not given full-hearted support to orthodoxy. Will they express their doubts, if they have any? Will we hear about these?
Will consideration of unions of people of the same sex (perhaps civil partnerships rather than marriage) be a simple confirmation of traditional teaching? Or will the Synod take into account the well-established sexual orientation of homosexuals – leading perhaps to a recognition that ‘natural behaviour’ is open to a wider definition, at least in practice, if not in theory. The habit of deducing sexual morality from physical structures has found less favour with moral theologians in recent years.
You may have other questions to ask. I am very much looking forward to your contributions. And I think we will take the opportunity at the right time to discuss what actually happened.
I have a special request here. Currently I am planning to pose questions about the Synod in my Catholic Herald column for 3 October. Your contributions to my post today will help me greatly in finalising what I write. I will value your help.